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  December 15th, 2015 | Written by

Balancing Act

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  • How Executive MBAs Are Evolving So Your Employee Can Handle Work And School

At 39, Brad Liddie’s interest in going back to school and expanding his advancement opportunities at Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Kenco neatly aligned with his employer’s new training partnership with the University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UTK).

“It had been a number of years that I’d been out of school,” says Liddie, who has been with Kenco since 2001 and is currently VP of Operations, “and I recently went through APICS certification for supply chain leadership. I think I may have been at the right place at the right time and I got a ton of support from my company to be able to do that.”

In addition to his job, Liddie—a Marine Corps veteran—balanced going back to school against the demands of home, his wife and two children.

“I felt like I had a really good support system on both sides,” he says. “My mentor at work encouraged me to invest in myself. And the same goes for my wife and kids. My wife made a number of sacrifices so that I could focus on study or travel that was required for school. Without her support, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

Liddie, Kenco and UTK are part of the evolution of modern executive MBA and certification programs that use combinations of night, end-of-the-week, and/or online classes to provide access to enhanced skills and knowledge to more men and women already ensconced in corporate America.

Many employees in logistics and manufacturing can be sent back to school, concurrently with their career, to master a given skill set. Education leaders at UTK, Florida State University in Tallahassee and Arizona State University spoke to Global Trade about how they work with executive students and employers to make the return to school as fluid, cost- and time-effective as possible for all parties.

Some CEOs don’t realize what’s available to them, or perhaps they know about the programs but have hesitations. In most cases, these situations are really a win-win: The student can advance his or her education and career (often with financial support provided by the employer), and the employer can gain great value from the employee. In some cases, through student projects and such, the employees will take on a challenge with the help of instructors and bring an immediate dollar value back to the company.

At UTK, Liddie’s course of study required two weeks on-site every quarter—sometimes in Knoxville, once in Europe, once in Asia. The rest of his study experience was online, giving him great flexibility in balancing the demands of work, home and school.

Larry Giunipero is the Tom Petrillo Term Professor of Supply Chain Management and director of the Global Supply Chain Management Center at Florida State University.

Classes in FSU’s online executive masters program focus on upstream and downstream supply chain management and include: Global Strategy; Purchasing and Supply Chain; Operations Management; Logistics and Supply Chain; and Business-to-Business Marketing.

“The online MBAs are mostly employed, doing the balancing act,” Giunipero says. “The full-timers, of course, have to take a sabbatical from work or they just withdraw from their current employer. Perhaps they go back, or perhaps find other opportunities.”
Which, obviously, is a reason some employers blanched at funding the traditional executive MBA model. Why should a company pay for a top executive or mid-level manager to take a year off and go back to school with no guarantee of a return on investment?

That’s exactly the issue that modern executive MBA and certificate programs have been reconfigured to combat.

“One of the benefits of online is you don’t have to show up at 8 a.m. for a class because you’ve got the flexibility to take it within the parameters that the instructor sets for the course,” Giuinpero says.
Some universities and colleges offer hybrid programs wherein students come to campus for a week or a weekend to complete certain assignments or attend special lectures. How long it takes to complete an executive degree or certificate program largely rests with the student, who might take one class per semester or as many as two or three.

Arizona State University recently absorbed the Thunderbird School of Global Management. As a result, in development for Fall 2016 at ASU is an online global trade and commerce certificate program with a substantial logistics segment.

“It will have a separate course on the politics of alliances, how you do a trade alliance, whether you should be in NAFTA, Trans-Pacific, all those kinds of things,” says Arnold Maltz, associate professor of Supply Chain Management and director of the Master of Science in Global Logistics program at ASU. “It will have my class, which is strictly on emerging markets and how you actually do business and trade in emerging markets, especially emphasizing the physical distribution side of it. It will also have electives that could be anything from overseas assignments and overseas projects, which Thunderbird has done for many, many years, to cultural awareness.”

There are executive MBA candidates who represent high potential or key talent to their employers. They have deep experience in a particular area of business—maybe as a plant manager, director of procurement, distribution or transportation operations. Or maybe they’ve been in project management and strategy, but they haven’t necessarily had the experience or the breadth across the organization to be able to put things together in how a supply chain can deliver value to the business.

“That’s the type of student that we’ve targeted for our supply chain management program,” according to Shay D. Scott, managing director of the Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. “We designed our program from the ground up with that in mind. It’s an 11-month program; starts in January, ends in December. We tinkered with different program lengths and zeroed in on the one-year timeframe as deep enough that you can get a transformative experience, but not so long that you keel over and are in a ditch before you graduate.”

Scott notes that while supply chain management is male-dominated, UTK’s 2016 incoming class is 55 percent female, “because the companies are selecting key female talent to diversify their leadership ranks. It’s a great thing for the supply chain.”

Donna Deason earned a bachelors degree in chemical engineering and hadn’t been in a classroom in more than two decades when she committed herself to earning an executive MBA from UTK in 2015.

“It’s going well for me,” says the global business director for Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tennessee. “I took the time upfront to make sure that, one, I was committed and I was going to be positive about the experience; and, two, that I would find a program that really fit my needs, because not all MBA or Executive MBA programs are the same.”

Deason says Eastman Chemical sees the benefit in continuing education. “They’re very happy to look for corporate funding for these types of things so you don’t also have the emotional stress of paying for it out of your own pocket, as many of my peers in this program have done,” she says. “I was blessed to have corporate funding and the backing that said, ‘You don’t have to take vacation when you’re away on these courses and class time. Work it into your business role. Get your business job done.’ They were very supportive.”

Mary Curran is a costumer/buyer in Creative Costuming at the Walt Disney Co. in Orlando, Florida, a management-level position that includes elements of global undertaking because many of the costumes that her department makes go out to Disney parks around the world. She is currently in the fourth of seven semesters in FSU’s online executive masters program.

“About five years into my career here, I had become a full-time manager,” she says. “I’d had some really great opportunities to travel worldwide for the company. It’s a company where turnover in upper-level management jobs is very low. People love them and hold onto them as much as they can. Toward my fifth year, a lot of people I worked with were getting ready to retire. So I figured that I would go back to school.”

Fortunately for her, Disney offers an extremely generous tuition reimbursement program, one that took a great deal of stress out of the decision to keep working while expanding her global knowledge.

“My role at Disney involves some supply chain aspects,” Curran explains. “As a buyer, we do purchase ordering, vendor selection and vendor score cards. Learning the supply chain material has been beneficial for me because it explains why we do a lot of the things we do.”

Is it possible to quantify the value of a company investing in an executive MBA for a single employee?
UTK’s Scott says yes.

“On average,” he says, “our students return $6.5 million in savings or incremental revenue growth back to their company on a three-year basis. That’s actually, for some of the students, a tiny number. We had a student that accomplished a project that was valued at over $100 million. And we’ve had some that are smaller. It’s not always necessarily about the direct dollar savings, but it’s a win-win.”